Quite often people who are experiencing emotional distress simply need to talk to someone who will actively listen to them. A solution to their depressive or anxious feelings may not be achievable, but a connection to their pain and emotional discomfort may be exactly what is needed.
It is true that when a person feels they have been understood, you can even disagree with them about something and the disagreement will not feel as bad. Sometimes, I am afraid, those of us who counsel people are looking for something that does not exist. In fact, our label or diagnosis of a person may at times be more hurtful than helpful to the process of counseling.
Recently, a man came to me with an emotional hurt that had led him to a nervous, tearful, and generally uneasy confusion. The more I determined to simply hear him out, the more convinced I became that he needed to vocalize his feelings in a protected and safe environment. We talked about some basic principles involved in interpreting things in life. We talked about emotions. We even looked at some Scripture passages that dealt with attitude and commitment.
He came in to my office sounding like he was going to leave his wife. However, the more I listened and he talked, it was made clear by this man himself that he really had no intention of doing this. When he left, I suggested he look at how he was relating to his wife and how he was interpreting her actions and his feelings about those actions. This couple was about to celebrate their 50th anniversary! He left my office feeling better and ready to work on something to help his relationship. Most of the time was spent in nothing more than my actively listening to him.
There are other times when a couple or an individual may need to "vent" or speak out their inner feelings in order to get to the place where they can look at their situation from a different perspective.
With so many people, I try to remind them that it is not so much what we do but how we do it-not so much what we say but how we say it. When I have listened long enough and made sure I understood what they were saying, they were more open to hear me and try a new approach to a prevailing difficulty in their life or relationship.
We cannot overrate the importance of understanding someone. It takes time to do that. It takes active and empathic listening. It involves asking questions in order to clarify their statements, feelings, and even beliefs.
The book of James is such a practical book. It underscores the importance of behaving in accordance with our faith. James 1:19 says that "everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger." When we, as counselors, take the time to really listen to a person we are counseling, we will help them to one degree or another. One thing is for sure, we will never really help a person by simply offering advice without first listening to them. Sometimes, a person just needs to talk. When we can listen to what they have to say, we might just be a blessing God sends into their lives.
James Rudy Gray is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. He serves as the pastor of Utica Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C.
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